Good Mood Food: Sian Williams says we need diets that make us healthier and happier

Two years after her cancer operation, the former BBC Breakfast presenter fronts Save Money: Lose Weight – a programme testing the affordability and effects of different diets

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Diet – the very word reeks of a punishment regime where pleasure doesn’t get a look in. My mum always seemed to be on one. Grapefruit and egg, the Hay diet, cabbage soup – she tried them all. Those organised clubs, too, where members stand on scales to be applauded or admonished, depending on where the needle hovers. Growing up, I saw many women like her denying themselves what they loved and still getting no thinner. I promised myself I’d never start one. 

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And then along came “occasional fasting”, which seemed to promise a longer life. Got to try that one. Sugar ages you? Give that up then. Stretchy gluten molecules can puff up your belly? OK, wheat’s gone. I don’t eat meat anyway. And don’t tempt me with that glass of wine; I’ve just read reports about it giving you cancer.

So having spent my life swearing never to go on a diet, I ended up on one, because I’d cut out so many food groups. Not in a bid to lose weight, but to try to be “healthier”. My husband? Well, I’ve just asked him what he had for lunch yesterday and he said, “Two doughnuts,” which just about sums up his attitude to healthy eating. I was all about green tea, vegetables and salmon – his diet seemed full of wine, meat and puddings. Guess who got cancer? Me.

“It’s a mix of genetics and bad luck,” the surgeon remarked, as I went in for a double mastectomy for breast cancer two years ago. “Nothing to do with how you lived your life, or what you did or didn’t eat.” During recovery, I asked the oncologist if I should change my diet (again) to prevent it coming back. When he told me, “A glass of red wine isn’t going to make the cancer come back, Sian,” I could have hugged him. Moderation in all things and a little of what you fancy, he told me. We probably knew that already, but sometimes it takes a doctor in a white coat to say it for us to take it on board.

In the end, diets are not just about the pounds we lose; they’re about the impact on our mental health. If we are going to try one, for whatever reason, let’s make sure it’s something we can stick to, that doesn’t feel like purgatory and that will end up making us happier and healthier.

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David Cameron speaks to Sian Williams on BBC Breakfast

An ITV series I’ve been filming also looks at how affordable diets are, too. Where is the evidence that those highly marketed “super-foods”, which can be expensive, are better than the cheaper options?

What difference does fasting make? And which diet, pound for £, is the most successful and sustainable in keeping us trim and making us feel good about ourselves?

We put six dieters on different eating plans to find out. I can’t tell you the results because we’re filming right up to the wire (sorry to be a spoil-sport, but honestly I don’t know myself yet). Based on my own research into psychology, neuroscience and mental health, though, I can tell you what won’t work and why certain diets have such an impact on our brain and mood.

Our gut is called our “second brain” for a reason. It’s chock-full of immune cells, over half the total amount in our whole body and there are more than a hundred million neurons, or nerve cells, in there as well. It’s no surprise that the state of our gut plays a crucial part in our emotional health and general wellbeing.

Certain foods encourage a healthy digestion and others hamper it. It’s all about the “gut flora”. Think of it like a garden – you want flowers, not weeds. Sugar encourages the weeds to flourish because it’s the fuel for pathogenic or “bad” bacteria. Foods high in sugar – not just the granulated stuff but carbohydrates like white bread and pasta – make any damaged flora in our stomachs much worse.

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Doctor Ranj and Sian Williams on The Money Saving Diet Show

The more we eat, the more the sugar-loving bacteria multiply, the more our brain is told to sustain those levels and the more sweet and processed food we crave. Any diet that cuts out high-fat foods and replaces it with sugar, whether in soups, sauces or ready meals, will neither fill you up nor make you happier.

Here’s some research on sugar and emotion. Some studies comparing diets in the US, Canada and Japan suggested that those who ate less sugar had lower levels of depression. A study from Swansea University also looked at the relationship between a dip in blood sugar levels after a high-glucose binge and poor memory, low attention and aggression. Stress affects the hormonal balance in our digestive tract, too.

Too much sugar is toxic to our brain, then. But beating ourselves up for eating a “bad” food after doing so well eating “good” ones is a recipe for disaster as well. Nothing is worth that feeling of food-based self-loathing after falling off the diet wagon. Moderation. It’s a horrible word but that doctor was right. The occasional sugar hit, as long as it is very occasional, is not going to kill us, although it will probably make us feel lousy. 

What does the gut like, then? Variety. That’s why cutting out too many food groups is a bad idea. In the end, a healthy, varied, balanced diet is good for our body and our brain, especially during challenging times. Regular meals help our mental stability and the food we eat boosts it further; eggs, oily fish and avocados contain vitamins crucial for memory and stress regulation. Dairy, broccoli and beans have calcium to help the nervous system. A lack of magnesium (brown rice, nuts, green veg) is thought to make depression worse. Knowing all this means if we’re going through tough times, at least we know we’re supporting our mental wellbeing with what we eat. I’m lucky. The doctors say my body’s healthy. Now I can concentrate on nurturing, warming, stress-busting brain foods.

My gut feeling for 2017 is this: that we will stop persecuting ourselves about what we should and shouldn’t eat; we’ll stop living in hungry denial and we’ll stop pursuing the starve-sugar-starve cycle. This year will be all about eating for happiness, not just for weight loss.

Let’s make it the year for Good Mood Food.

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Save Money: Lose Weight is on Thursday at 8pm on ITV